US government cultural institutions are some of the most respected and recognized museums in the country. In 1996, 83% of American adults recognized the Smithsonian name and 72% had a positive impression of it even in the middle of the Enola Gay controversy (Kurin 29). How and when should government cultural institutions use this name recognition to be creative? Are there times when it is best to stay true to historic trends and narratives?
The Smithsonian’s 150th anniversary exhibit provides a good case study because curators, marketers, and administrators all had different opinions of how the institution should be presented. In the end, Kurin describes the touring exhibit as a safe move for the museum that was based on historic trends. In 1996, Americans were “more comfortable with a priestly form of curation at the civically sacred Smithsonian that with one professing a new narrative” (Kurin 39). For Kurin, this new type of curation seems to be entertainment-based, more like theme parks, memorials, and media shows than a label-curated show. In 2017, it is reasonable to say that some museums have changed their form to attract wider audiences, though most are balanced somewhere between historical and new media presentation methods.
I noticed trends between the Smithsonian’s 150th celebration and the Park Service’s centennial birthday year in 2016, which both tried to invite new audiences but also stay true to historic narratives. The Park Service offered free passes for all the nation’s 4th graders, had celebrations on August 15th (the birthday), and had a “Find Your Park” media campaign. Through all the new and creative programming ideas, the recognizable symbols of the National Park Service remained the same: the Arrowhead and ranger uniform. As the Park Service continues to plan for the next 100 years, parks might be more interesting if they were playful with these symbols. The arrowhead in particular is an important connection to the history of the Park Service, but parks could make their own arrowheads with symbols that represent each place and display both. There could be a public contest and the new arrowheads could signal a new interpretive approach. The arrowhead is just one historic interpretive symbol that might benefit from some new creativity.
Where does activism fit in the museum? With the museum curators and staff, with the public, or some combination between the two?
Robert James and Pablo Helguera seem to provide a nice balance in this regard. James tells us what museums should be doing and how they should be structured to best contribute to civil society – “that space between the individual and the government” (James 123). James doesn’t delve deep into how we might actually achieve this, but Helguera provides one example. Helguera is speaking specifically of socially engaged art, but I think (hope) practices of collaboration/engagement/conversation between artists and the public are possible in other types of museums.
Specifically, museum professionals seem to be moving away from a pretend neutrality towards open activism. This shift still allows the museum to remain the top authority without input from public or communities that a museum serves. I was impressed with the socio-environmental programs James mentioned, but wonder what each actually looks like on the ground. How were these exhibits or programs accessible to and received by the public?
I find myself engaged with new climate change networks in Canada and the UK (the US does not have a defined network). In each, professionals from multiple museums have come together to consider how museum collections, education, structures can address climate change. What should a new activist network take into consideration regarding shared authority and engagement?
Vagnone’s “Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums” might not be as revolutionary as the title (as many of us have noted), but it is still practical, much needed advice. As Amelia noted, many historic house museums are behind the curve of accessibility and relating to visitors, so a more middle-of-the-road approach to programming and visitor relations might work best.
Sometimes, though, museums take a more drastic, new approach to programming. Reading Vagnone and Simon, I was reminded of the historic house museum – Duke Farms – that demolished its historic home. Well, the property was really preserved for the landscape and because it was owned by the tobacco money heiress Doris Duke, but it also included a 1893 historic structure that was torn down just last year. Doris Duke created foundations for her other homes based on their architecture, but Duke Farms’ was meant to preserve the farm and property. Over time, the mission evolved to “inspire visitors to become informed stewards of the land” and inspire “people to transform their approach to conservation” (About Duke Farms 1).
The historic home was never designed as an architectural beauty – it was only meant as a temporary home while the family waited for a nicer house to be be built (which never was). Demolishing the house created controversy in the New Jersey community, but also perfectly followed Simon’s advice on relevancy. The home did not hold any particular historic value, and demolishing it allowed Duke Farms to further realize its mission of protecting the landscape and providing recreation space for visitors.
While reading about cultural appropriation this week, I was reminded of a big story in the Park Service last year regarding “missing” native remains at Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa. It turns out the prehistoric remains affiliated with many modern day Indigenous tribes were not really missing, but stolen in 1990 … by the park’s superintendent. Just before NAGPRA went into effect in 1990, the superintendent at the time stole and hid all the native remains from the park’s museum in his garage because he didn’t want to repatriate the funerary objects that they were buried with. Perhaps the most ridiculous part is that no one found out until 2016!
This account and the readings for this week had me thinking about how Indigenous people are represented at National Parks. Effigy Mounds is a sacred place to the 20 Americans tribes that are associated with the site, yet the park is run by the government rather than returned to the tribes. Other parks may not be sacred sites, but still tell stories of Indigenous tribes (or perhaps leave this history out). Is there a “correct” way for the NPS to depict native cultures? Should they hire Indigenous rangers as stewards and guides? Should the land be returned to the tribes? This is a fraught issue, but perhaps a good case study to think about cultural appropriation in government collections in contrast to private museum collections.
Can discomfort with a presentation or performance move viewers to empathy and reflection? Perhaps more importantly, can this empathy push people (both museum leaders and visitors) to action?
Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s “The Couple in the Cage” and Coco Fusco’s piece on the performance both focus on visitor reactions to the piece. While some visitors leisurely strolled up to the cage for a photo or to speak directly to Fusco and Gómez-Peña, many shied away from direct contact and looked uncomfortable. Some parents “looked very nervous” explaining the exhibit to their children” and others “feared getting too close, preferring instead to stay at the periphery of the audience” (Fusco 157, 160). Fusco also described that many asked the museum guards about their treatment in the cage and then “continued with a politely delivered stream of questions about our eating, work, and sexual habits” (Fusco 159). In all these examples, viewers are reacting to their discomfort – either by leaning away from the uncomfortable experience or by seeking an explanation to normalize the performance.
It seems that this is often how museums react, as well. It is easier to disassociate with potentially controversial content rather than making a political statement. It is also easier for museums to call themselves socially responsible by explaining the context of certain items in the collection rather than repatriate them. I was surprised that so many prominent museums agreed to Fusco and Gómez-Peña’s performance and open themselves up to potential criticism, but also curious to see how this criticism might have changed museums’ colonialist approach to collections. Fusco does mention that at natural history sites “our project became a pretext for internal discussions about the extent of self-criticism those museums could openly be engaged in,” though little about how the internal museum conversation continued (if it did at all) after the exhibit (Fusco 159).
Empathy from museum curators, board members, and other professionals could provide a new way for those in leadership roles to view colonialism and change narratives in the museum. Perhaps empathy from the visitors that leads to protest is more important. Demanding changes would make the institution uncomfortable and perhaps force change – museums do depend on visitors as “customers” after all.
Doss’ discussion of statue mania seems to be linked to the larger historic preservation of the early twentieth century. Both movements were spurred by middle and upper class anxieties about national unity because of “the rapid advance of modernism, immigration, and mass culture” (Doss 27). Historic preservation laws are aimed at saving (or recreating) certain places of American life, much as statues and memorials are meant to venerate certain people. Both create a landscape of memory for the public and each of us to interact with – or not.
Since “concepts of nationalism and national identity are cultural constructions,” and each generation has a new view on how the previous generation saved the cultural landscape, what do we do with statues, structures, and memorials that are mostly forgotten (Doss 53)? As cultural workers, do we have a responsibility to repurpose these places into the current mood of experience-based places of memory?
Alternatively, how do we save places of continued meaning from current preservation challenges? With this, I am thinking particularly of how climate change will impact historic structures, statues, and memorials. Without any action, many landscapes of memory will be lost, but saving everything would be costly and would alter the historic integrity of the structures. For my job focused on cultural heritage and climate change, my colleague and I investigated this topic here. From our research, we found that US preservation law has not quite caught up to
climate change impacts, but that states and communties are beginning to take action. This has the benefit of allowing more localized groups to make decisions on which places of memory are important to them, but also means that many communties have not formed a reaction.
How does pop culture reinforce/ reconstruct myths of American history? Can modern myths even be created or exist outside of pop culture media outlets?
I was thinking of my own experiences working at sites of American history as I read Glassberg’s piece, particularly how visitors often came to the John Adams home with “memories” from watching an HBO series or reading a popular biography. Many were nostalgic for places they had never been, and often described to me scenes from the HBO series (which was not filmed at the historic location, but most thought that is was). I never watched the HBO series, but after a few months of working at this historic home, I felt like I had!
Glassberg poses the question, “Will mass culture in the next century prove to be a more powerful force than the nation-state in the twentieth century for the standardization of public historical imagery?” (Glassberg 14). It seems to me that mass culture and divided politics (more than a singular nation-state) work together to create imagery that builds into myth and nostalgia. Still, the mass culture piece often comes first. People visit the Grange (Hamilton’s home) because they have seen the musical; they do not see Hamilton because of a prior love for Hamilton the man. The same was true at the historic home where I worked, and so visitors often had the same mass-produced views of the story that they were not necessarily looking to change. Interpreters at recognizable historic sites have always been faced with myths of the history, but I wonder how myths created by mass culture interact with historic sites differently than myth passed down through generations that did not create specific images. Mass culture creates the imagery of the place, while myths picked up in reading or conversation leave the visual to each individual.
Note that the picture above of the HBO John Adams series is not at the historic home in Massachusetts, but actually filmed in Canada and Virginia.
What role does memory play in the creation of historical narratives?
While Michel-Rolph Trouillot does not directly address memory, it seems that the idealized memory of those in power is turned into our textbook history. After the Haitian Revolution, which seemed impossible to many in power, “planters, administrators, politicians, or ideologues found explanations that forced the rebellion back within their worldview, shoving the facts into the proper order of discourse” (Trouillot, 91). Their memory of events, largely influenced by their ideologies, could not conceive of the actual events and so the Haitian Revolution was largely silenced in the historical narrative.
In contrast, Pierre Nora describes a clear divide between history and memory, where memory “is life, borne by living societies” and history, as “an intellectual and secular productions, calls for analysis and criticism” (Nora, 8 – 9). Do the producers of history then have no memory of their own that influences their narratives? Trouillot would seem to indicate exactly the opposite, writing that “[t]he inability to step out of history in order to write or rewrite it applies to all actors and narrators” (Trouillot, 140). For Trouillot, good history must involve “someone’s past,” presumably with voices from those underrepresented in traditional narratives (Trouillot, 142). Is this closer to Nora’s idea of memory? Does adding new voices and new memories make a more truthful historical narrative?
As practitioners, should we try to separate memory from historical fact or is there a way we can highlight how they are woven together?
How do we, as public humanists and interpreters, help create space for public discussion and debate in museums rather than simply a public space to view private works? Where should these discussions take place: in the galleries, in creating the work, or even in the governance of the museum?
I found Hilde Hein’s chapter “Public Art” History and Meaning” particularly useful to think through the distinctions between art in a public place and public art. While a visitor to a public museum could come and leave without interacting with anyone, a person engaged in a public art work is compelled “to refine communication skills” by interacting with other visitors and the artist (Hein 55). The artist cannot loose sight of the visitor, as a grouping of the public is needed to create the work. Hein points to recent public art as examples of “replac[ing] answers with questions” and “mak[ing] room for doubt,” lessons from which traditional museums can learn (76). For Hein, the public interacts with the materials and concepts, though the artist probably retains the authority on the initial idea.
Bandelli has a more radical method to bring the public into the museum. While Hein focuses on the public’s role in interacting with established programming, Bandelli advocates for public input in museum decisions. I imagine this would include choosing which exhibits are displayed and perhaps helping to curate some of the work. How does the meaning of the public change as individuals are invited into the decision making process? Are they still members of the public once they have inside status and information or does their role change in some way? I’m interested to further consider how Bandelli and Hein’s views intersect, differ, and play out in various museum settings.
“Community” and “public” are both such complex terms that can lend themselves to many different readings, as Barrett and Warner point out. When placed together, though, they help me to pinpoint my own assumptions about each and general discomfort with creating work for “the public.”
When creating an event for simply “the public,” I often feel discouraged and unsure how to proceed. Who are the individuals and where do their interests lie? It’s like talking to an empty room or a stranger, as described in Warner. Warner, though, seems to believe that his words are worth writing and that someone is listening, whereas I would probably consider my work or article a failure without any community responses .
Here is where I realized that “community” is a huge part of my understanding of public humanities. In an ideal project, I would want to speak with stakeholders, historians, and people with different types of knowledge on the subject. All these people are part of communities and help me to focus my work. If the public is a stranger, what I’m showing might not be relevant to anyone. While Barrett disagrees, I find communities are easily more concrete than the vastness of the public.